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Critical Studies in Television: scholarly studies of small screen fictions

Editorial board: Kim Akass, Stephen Lacey, David Lavery, Janet McCabe, Robin Nelson and Rhonda V. Wilcox.

‘How Does She Wear It?’ Shopping with SJP and Carrie Bradshaw in the Age of Television Stardom.

Deborah Jermyn, Roehampton University UK.

 

Writing about female fans of Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004) in the summer of 2002, I opened with a personal anecdote. It recounted how during the previous winter I had gone on a Top Shop quest to buy a tweed flat cap in London’s Oxford Circus, inspired by one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s signature looks from the recent season of SATC (Jermyn 2004). Some two years later in the run up to Christmas 2004, I came to be at Oxford Circus again. This time, just over the road, I found myself at Gap. Behind the tills, on the stairways, in the windows, SJP smiled at me in an array of new season’s outfits. ‘How do you wear it?’ asked the advertising tagline accompanying the images. In the UK, as in the US, Gap ran a limited offer at the start of the campaign where customers buying particular jeans could have them specially customised, in effect making their pair unique. For these keen Gap customers the answer to the question ‘How do you wear it?’ was evidently ‘I make it my own’ and in effect, this too was SJP’s unspoken answer to the question at the core of the campaign.

 

SJP – style guru, personal grooming idol, fashion aficionado – would never take an ordinary pair of Gap jeans (‘the new low rise jean’) off the rail and ‘just’ wear them. As the images in the campaign underlined, through an unexpected brooch pinned here, or a surprising choice of jacket teamed there, SJP would make these jeans more than, something other than, a mass-produced commodity, a stock fashion-perennial available to everyone from this ‘mid-priced international chain store’ (Epstein 2000: 197). This quality – a capacity, according to a generation of fashion writers, for quirky, individuated and typically (though not unfailingly) skilfully judged fashion statements – undoubtedly made SJP a dream face to front the new campaign for Gap marketing executives. Increasingly eager to attract an audience of consumers wanting something a little more distinctive or stylish than the low end of the high-street, other recent Gap campaigns have been fronted by Madonna and Missy Elliot, for example, while the store most famously received a boost to its kudos in 1996 when Sharon Stone, ‘a model for a fashionable film star’ (Epstein 2000: 198), attended the Oscars in a black Gap turtleneck. As I shopped and pondered all this, outside the London store a double-decker bus trundled by. On the side of the bus, bigger than life, a poster of SJP in Gap gear smiled benignly at the shoppers. For anyone with even a passing familiarity with SATC, a fragment of the programme would have echoed in this instant. In a moment approaching something like déjà-vu, one could almost have been watching the show’s memorable opening credits where, next to the tagline ‘Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex’, the image of a prostrate Carrie adorns the side of a New York bus advertising her newspaper column. Standing in the street in this moment, ‘real life’, fictional narrative and television iconography coalesced and the wisdom of those astute Gap marketing executives crystallised. The prestige held by SATC as a trend-setting fashion arbiter (and its attendant exoneration of pleasure in consumption) was quite effortlessly harnessed to a store still arguably best known for its reliable sartorial basics. And the more pertinent question at the core of the campaign revealed itself to be not, ‘How do you wear it?’ but rather, ‘Who is wearing it?’ – namely, SJP or Carrie Bradshaw?

 

Of course there is a long and acknowledged history of the fashion and other retail industries calling on celebrity endorsement and media ‘tie-ins’ as a means of promoting consumerism and maximising sales (Eckert 1990; Herzog and Gaines 1991) but it is not my intention here to explore this relationship in the contemporary media. Rather, through analysing aspects of the recent use of (the) image(s) of SJP/Carrie Bradshaw, I wish to offer some tentative thoughts on how the discourses surrounding them point to a wider need to revisit some established theoretical paradigms regarding media specificity and fame; namely, the contention, first made more than two decades ago and rarely returned to since, that TV produces mere ‘personalities’ where cinema produces stars.

 

Will the real SJP please stand up?

 

I open with the Gap campaign since it is just one instance of the media’s wider reflexive play with, and a sometimes intriguing apparent collapse of, distinctions between SJP and the character she plays. Following her small-screen role as fashion maverick/fanatic Carrie Bradshaw in SATC, a series credited with having ‘brought exclusive designer labels and couturiers into the mainstream’ (McCabe with Akass 2004: 10), SJP has been catapulted to A-list status. Crucially, her transformation and visibility as such has been largely maintained by a continuing series of red-carpet moments, beloved of women’s, fashion and celebrity magazines, which seem to confirm her own ‘real’ aptitude for trend-setting. For example, in the ‘Star style’ pages of heat in 2004, a feature asking, ‘How to wear your hair this season?’ answered ‘The only way is up, baby’ and showed how ‘stylish star’ SJP (along with Jessica Simpson and Jada Pinkett Smith) was leading the way with a ‘twisted bun’ (4-10 December 2004: 52). Elsewhere in the ‘trend-spotter’ pages of Hot Stars (free with OK!) it was revealed that, ‘thanks to the stars’, lace ‘has been given a fab new lease of life’; a pronouncement given weight by a picture of SJP in said fabric alongside copy noting, ‘The style icon can’t go wrong’ (23 November 2004: 34). The dramatic growth of celebrity magazines such as these in recent years offers yet another motive to revisit theoretical approaches to stardom. The hierarchy once headed by cinematic stars has apparently shifted as glamorous names from film, TV and other arenas feature alongside one another as equal objects of desire and public interest, all as likely as one another to appear as designer muses and devotees. More specifically for my purposes here the implicit collapse of distinctions in the above coverage, or what Dyer has similarly identified as the ‘elision of star as person and star as image’ (1979: 23), incurs a process where one of the ‘defining’ qualities of SJP/Carrie – fashion trailblazing – is apparently, and crucially, shared by them both.

 

Linked to this, there has been considerable academic interest in the extent to which stardom pivots on the ‘duality of image … a duality which emphasises a balance between the site of the fictional performance and life outside’ and which in classical cinema typically pivoted on ‘a contrast between the glamorous film world and the surprisingly ordinary domestic life of the star’ (italics mine) (Geraghty 2000: 184-5). Equally however, suggesting a greater sense of confluence, Dyer’s seminal work on stardom notes that ‘the roles and/or the performance of a star in a film were taken as revealing the personality of the star’ (1979: 22), though, as is still undoubtedly the case, this ‘real’ ‘personality’ in itself was inevitably at least something of a construction. John Ellis’ 1982 seminal Visible Fictions helped turn debates around stardom in another direction with regards to the pertinence of the concept for analysis of television. He argued that stardom proper could not be bestowed by the more ‘intimate’ medium of television, since its performers were constructed to appear as a ‘known and familiar person rather than a paradoxical figure, both ordinary and extraordinary’ (1992: 106). His position held much in common with John Langer (1981), who had similarly suggested that the consumption of TV in the home, the medium’s fondness for direct address and its routinised scheduling all functioned to reduce a sense of ‘distance’ between the medium and the viewer; an approach in many ways later endorsed by P. David Marshall who also concluded that the medium of television reduced the ‘aura’ of its celebrities (1997: 121). Notably for both Ellis and Langer, then, a significant result of the differences between the two media, and one initially apparently borne out by the slippage between SJP/Carrie, is that television posits ‘a drastic reduction in the distance between the circulated image and the performance. The two become very much entangled, so that the performer’s image is equated with that of the fictional role (rather than vice-versa)’ (Ellis 1992: 106).

 

Reflecting more closely on this body of work and the spectacular rise of SJP discrepancies and paradoxes emerge. First, the apparent ‘elision’ of Carrie/SJP is not consistent at all and in fact exists largely in relation to the promotion of both as fashionistas, a quality which constitutes only one dimension of each of these multi-faceted figures. Beyond her regular place in red-carpet fashion photo-montages, popular coverage of SJP also routinely delights in espousing the fact of her happy marriage (to actor Matthew Broderick in 1997) and, more recently, her joy at becoming a mother for the first time (to son James born in 2002); the fascination here, to paraphrase Geraghty’s remarks on classical Hollywood stardom, is very much with SJP’s ‘ordinary domestic life’ and its coexistence with her ‘glamorous’ self. In a 2003 Elle feature/cover story about the star, for example, both these dimensions of SJP’s persona are engaged by the interviewer, who moves seamlessly from the starry-eyed (‘if SJP could wear only three designers for the rest of her life, who would they be?’) to the mundane (‘has motherhood changed her marriage?’). SJP recalls that she married in a black dress and confides that, I begged Matthew recently, “Please, let’s renew our vows so I can wear a pretty white gown” … By all accounts they live in blissful harmony … “[I] would definitely like to have more children,” she says, fishing around in her bag (not from a luxury goods house mind, but by the more discreet designer of boho-esque booty, Jamin Peuch) in search of a picture of her son. When she realises she’s left it at home she looks somewhat dejected (Lowthorpe 2003: 80).

 

The stable, conventional picture of culturally sanctioned domesticity, femininity and motherhood implicit in these narratives lies in stark contrast to the party-hopping, batchelorette lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw. In fact, SJP observes in the interview, ‘My life is so radically different to Carrie’s!’ (cited in Lowthorpe 2003: 77), and points out that, quite unlike Carrie, she has only ever dated a handful of men. While the endless stream of pictures of SJP on the red carpet seems to correspond perfectly with Carrie’s glamorous and frenetic lifestyle, then, stories of the ‘private’ SJP often contrast with and remove her from this arena. Indeed, in one Red magazine article, psychiatrist Dr Az Hakeem ‘deciphers the meaning behind the look’ of SJP at an event marking the end of SATC. His analysis of her picture seems to strive to make sense of the ‘public’ persona in the light of our knowledge of the ‘private’ one and to reconcile the SJP/Carrie dyad. Of the image of a typically glamorous looking SJP wearing impossibly high heels and surrounded by flash bulbs, he notes, With hair blow-dried straight and sleek, it’s obvious that Sarah Jessica Parker has long been growing out of singleton Carrie’s chaotic curls, and this mature look is arguably more in keeping with the married mother that she is in real life. It was SJP who allegedly called an end to the series, perhaps conscious of the danger that, despite the differences in their personal lives, she was almost synonymous in the public’s mind with Carrie – a comparison encouraged by their near-identical dress sense. Here, we see a hint of both character and actress (Hakeem 2004: 126).

 

On the one hand such discourses work to diffuse some of the progressive potential offered by Carrie – in Hakeem’s analysis identification with this rare model of a thirtysomething woman who has not embraced the dominant paths of marriage and/or motherhood is something that a ‘mature’ woman will ‘grow out of’. But equally these are discourses which very much ponder SJP in relation to the ‘ordinary/extraordinary’ paradigm once said to be the exclusive preserve of cinematic stardom.

 

This paradigm also seems particularly relevant to the construction of SJP’s star persona in regard to her physical appearance. While her supremely athletic frame and lush mane of hair have been admiringly scrutinised, few would claim her rather angular features constitute the kind of innate or ‘natural’ beauty which, however cosmetically enhanced, is de rigeur among so many other women stars. Indeed, her early TV role in Square Pegs (CBS, 1982-3) cast her as an awkward, teenage nerd, and press commentators continue to make occasional jibes about her looks. Despite/because of this, there is something of the enduringly appealing, classical ‘ugly-duckling-turned-swan’ star narrative about SJP. Her contemporary status as a ‘style-icon’, despite the fact that she ‘isn’t a stereotypical Hollywood beauty’ (Lowthorpe 2003: 80), has apparently been brought about through work, grooming and learned skills rather than ‘God-given’ beauty. This has arguably made her something of a beacon of hope for the ‘ordinary’ woman, even though access to these ‘skills’ is arguably largely determined by wealth. Of course this also alerts us to the constructed-ness of on- and off-screen persona again; just as stylist Patricia Field is credited as having been the major creative force behind the styling of SATC, and despite Parker’s evident passion for fashion as described in many feature articles about her, SJP’s ‘taste’ is in all probability at least partly assisted by a team of professional advisors. Throughout all this the pertinence of the ‘ordinary/extraordinary’ paradigm to SJP evidences the degree and nature of public fascination she has given rise to. It is just one way in which her star image (and its relationship with Carrie) can be seen to be polysemic and fractured, rather than consistent or stable, pointing to how a star image can both encapsulate a sense of closeness to, and difference from, a signature role; and how a television performance/performer now has the capacity to inspire and maintain the breadth of speculation and fascination that only a star, and not a mere ‘personality’, can occupy.

 

Constructing a televisual firmament

 

Some two decades after they first formulated their arguments, then, it seems an appropriate juncture to revisit and reconsider Langer and Ellis’ contention that television produces ‘personalities’ rather than stars. Ellis’ position is based partly on his argument that television lacks cinema’s ‘photo-effect’, a term he borrows from Barthes to describe the quality of ‘present absence’ in cinema; ‘the irreducible separation that cinema maintains (and attempts to abolish), the fact that objects and people are conjured up yet known not to be present’ (1992: 58-9). Karen Lury has taken issue with Ellis here, arguing ‘the pro-filmic moment is as much a part of television as it is of film, so that what is represented in two-dimension on screen is also a demonstration that there was something (three dimensional, solid) there once’ (1995: 117-8). Looking beyond the somewhat problematic appropriation of Barthes at the centre of Ellis’ argument for a moment, and reflecting further on SJP’s rise to iconic status, it seems indisputable that this status has been conferred by television and that it speaks of a changing landscape in the relationship between stardom and television.

 

Interestingly, since making her acting debut as a child-star on stage, SJP’s career trajectory has actually traversed both media, from TV (Square Pegs) to Hollywood (including LA Story (Mick Jackson, 1991) and Honeymoon in Vegas (Andrew Bergman, 1992)) and back again. This points to a fluidity increasingly common in contemporary stardom where movement between the two media appears to be burgeoning and where television, rather than film, may operate as the primary medium in bestowing A-list status. The careers of Gillian Anderson, Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney, for example, would also make instructive case studies in this respect3. Within this discussion, the recent renaissance of American Quality Television (AQT) has further underlined the sense in which contemporary television can confer professional credibility, as well as a regular mass audience, on an actor. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly evident that the individuals we might term ‘television stars’, who obtain the degree of international reach and kudos this term suggests, emanate from a particular kind of television drawn from a particular national context, and underline the import of AQT as a kind of breeding ground for TV stardom.

 

Furthermore, the advent of DVD and the expansion of multi-channel television, with its continuous re-runs of top series, have changed the way audiences can engage with both film and television, empowering many more viewers to become television connoisseurs as deeply passionate, reflective and knowledgeable about TV as film buffs are about cinema. In fact, linked to the above, it is very often AQT that produces these kinds of intense audience/television-text relationships, marked by repeated viewing, the purchase of series box-sets and so on. Post-SATC, for example, re-viewing the powerful and poignant moment where Aidan rejects Carrie, telling her ‘You broke my heart!’ (‘Baby, Talk Is Cheap,’ 4:6), knowing the series/the narrative/these characters are now forever lost to them yet forever theirs, the dedicated SATC fan is surely every bit as able to feel Ellis’ ‘intolerable nostalgia’ (1992: 59) as the fan of old movies. In bringing her a level of visibility and public fascination which cinema did not, while transforming her into a ‘style icon’ with all the connotations of ‘distance’ that such status inescapably brings (paradoxically alongside the simultaneous ‘intimacy’ of imitation), SJP’s appearance in SATC on the small screen for six years both has and has not made her ‘familiar’.

 

Gap turned to SJP to head their campaign for the way she, both in ‘herself’ and through Carrie, has come to be a prime aspirational figure, particularly for contemporary ‘middle youth’ (and arguably predominantly white, middle-class) women, where a nexus of desires surrounding femininity, feminism and fashion meet. Consequently, more detailed analysis of the ways in which her star image engages with the particular social contexts of the early twenty-first-century, how audiences identify with (or resist) this star image and what these processes signify about the status of contemporary stardom, has the potential to enrich and expand star studies beyond what the modest space afforded to me here allows. SJP’s career trajectory may not in itself prove anything definitive about contemporary televisual stardom but the very many debates, questions and contradictions that she seems to crystallise arguably underline the real need for a fresh look at this arena. For now, what seems quite clear is that anyone hoping to maintain in the current cultural climate that a TV ‘personality’ could still only ever bear ‘a fairly minimal relationship to the desire of the spectator’ (Ellis 1992: 107) evidently couldn’t have shopped for low-rise jeans in Gap for some time.

 

Works Cited.


Dyer, Richard (1979) Stars. London: BFI.
Eckert, Charles (1990) ‘The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.’ In Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, (eds) Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London: Routledge, 100 –21.
Ellis, John (1992) Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge.
Geraghty, Christine (2000) ‘Re-Examining Stardom: Questions of Texts, Bodies and Performance.’ In Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (eds) Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold, 183-201.
Hakeem, Az (2004) ‘What Was She Thinking? Sarah Jessica Parker.’ Red. June: 126.
Herzog, Charlotte Cornelia and Jane Marie Gaines (1991) ‘‘Puffed Sleeves Before Tea-Time’: Joan Crawford, Adrian and Women Audiences.’ In Christine Gledhill (ed) Stardom: Industry of Desire, London: Routledge, 74 –91.
Jermyn, Deborah (2004) ‘In Love with Sarah Jessica Parker: Celebrating Female Fandom and Friendship in Sex and the City.’ In Kim Akass and Janet McCabe (eds) Reading Sex and the City,. London: IB Tauris, 201-218.
________________(forthcoming 2006) ‘‘Bringing Out The * In You’: SJP, Carrie Bradshaw and the Evolution of Television Stardom.’ In Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, Sean (eds) Understanding Celebrity Culture: Deconstructing Fame. London: Routledge.
Lowthorpe, Rebecca (2003) ‘Downtown Girl.’ Elle (UK edition). December: 74-80.
Lury, Karen (1995) ‘Television Performance: Being, Acting and ‘Corpsing.’’ New Formations. 26: 114-27.
McCabe, Janet with Kim Akass (2004) ‘Introduction: Welcome to the Age of Un-Innocence.’ In Kim Akass and Janet McCabe (eds) Reading Sex and the City. London: IB Tauris, 1-14.

 

i In fact, SJP was also fronting two other campaigns in this period, for Garnier Nutrisse hair colourant and Lux bath and shower gel. Space prohibits me from discussing these further here, but for a more detailed discussion of the Lux campaign and of SJP as ‘star’ see, Jermyn (forthcoming 2006).

 

ii This is not to say the campaign, nor the use of its star, met with anything like universal approval. While the ads won their own devoted ‘fanlisting’ website (www.fanlistings.com/divine) and were voted ‘Best Ad Campaign’ in the UK by Now magazine (22-29 December 2004), NYC website www.gawker.com noted how many of the ads displayed around the city had been graffitied with the word ‘Ugly’. Similarly, the campaign won some scathing commentary on the discussion boards for UK newspaper The Daily Mail where one respondent noted, ‘[Yes] I know SJP is a fashion icon etc … but I think she looks like a scarecrow in those adverts’ (www.chat.dailymail.co.uk).

 

Images are used for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of their various copyright holders.